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Clegg Says U.K. Coalition Must Rethink Data Bill

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the U.K. government must reconsider plans to allow police and intelligence agencies to monitor phone calls and e-mail traffic, triggering a possible spat with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories.

“The coalition government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation,” Clegg, who leads the minority Liberal Democrats in the administration, said in an e-mailed statement, citing concerns over the scope of the legislation and possible infringements of civil liberties. “We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board.”

Clegg made his comments in response to the publication in London today of a report by a committee of both Houses of Parliament on the Draft Communications Data Bill that argued the proposed powers must be “significantly narrowed” to allow law-enforcement agencies access only to limited information.

The Liberal Democrat leader’s announcement sets up another possible clash within a coalition that’s grown increasingly strained since coming to power in May 2010. The two parties have been at odds over press regulation, taxation, electoral reform and relations with the European Union.

Police and intelligence agencies have been seeking powers to collect information showing the time, location and duration of a mobile phone call or the existence of an e-mail. Civil-liberties campaigners have expressed concern that the proposed powers are too intrusive, with ordinary people at risk of being spied upon.

‘Sweeping Powers’

The Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill, which includes lawmakers from all three main parties, said in its report that the bill as currently drafted would allow Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May “sweeping powers to order the retention of any kind of communications data by any communications service provider.”

The panel “makes a number of serious criticisms -- not least on scope; proportionality; cost; checks and balances; and the need for much wider consultation,” Clegg said. Moves to give law-enforcement agencies extra tools to fight crime “must be done in a proportionate way that gets the balance between security and liberty right.”

The Home Office said in a statement distributed before Clegg’s announcement that it intended to proceed with the plans.

“This legislation is vital to help catch pedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals,” the ministry said. “There can be no delay to this legislation. It is needed by law-enforcement agencies now.”

‘Crucial Line’

The chairman of the committee, David Maclean, a Conservative lawmaker in the upper House of Lords, argued the proposals went too far.

“The breadth of the draft bill as it stands appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law-enforcement agencies,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “There is a fine but crucial line between allowing our law-enforcement and security agencies access to the information they need to protect the country and allowing our citizens to go about their daily business without a fear, however unjustified, that the state is monitoring their every move.”

A separate report today by another panel of lawmakers, the Intelligence and Security Committee, whose members are appointed by the prime minister and which hears testimony in private, was more positive about the plan.

“Changing technology means that the agencies are unable to access all the communications data they need, that the problem is getting worse, and that action is needed now,” the committee said in an e-mailed statement.

“The government is making a complete mess of a very important issue,” the opposition Labour Party’s home-affairs spokeswoman, Yvette Cooper, said in an e-mailed statement. “Given the importance of technology in fighting crime, the home secretary needs to urgently rethink this legislation and get her approach right so that the police can do their job in fighting crime whilst the public have confidence their privacy is well protected too.”

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